The Nation Sunday Print Edition - page 10

10
Sunday, February 15, 2015
platform
By Maneshka Borham
O
n 20 February the set
task for the govern-
ment according to
its 100 Day program
will be introducing
to parliament the much awaited
and fought for Right to Informa-
tion (RTI) Bill. While previous at-
tempts were made by a handful of
Sri Lankan politicians to engage
the parliament in introducing
such a bill, it failed in two instanc-
es making Sri Lanka, along with
Afghanistan the only two SAARC
countries not to enact legislation
giving its citizens the right to re-
quest information pertaining to
actions of the government.
If therefore it is in fact for good
governance that the new regime
is gunning for, it is vital that it
understands that freedom of
information is a key component
of transparent and accountable
government.
In a post conflict society, estab-
lishing transparency in the public
sector is a daunting, if not an over-
whelming task. Therefore RTI laws
can play a major role in achieving
this target while ensuring good
governance in a society.
Accusations have been many
regarding governmental bodies
being rife with corruption, nepo-
tism and dominated by political
control, while their policy mak-
ing processes are often shrouded
in secrecy, all of which can ideally
be rectified by the introduction of
RTI laws.
Experts in conflict resolution of-
ten cite inadequate or inaccurate
information as potential sources
of conflict. Assuming that this is
true such RTI legislation can in a
post conflict society ensure a bet-
ter functioning of democracy with
more engaged citizens. It also can
nurture a culture of tolerance,
openness, honesty, and transpar-
ency, which provides a safeguard
against corruption and oppressive
governmental power. All of this
can presumably lead to the cre-
ation and maintenance of a peace-
ful and stable society.
Right to Information
The right to access information
held by public bodies is often re-
ferred to as ‘right to information’,
and has been recognized in interna-
tional law as a fundamental human
right. Over the years, this right has
gradually been recognized as part
of the fundamental right of free-
dom of expression, which includes
the right to seek, receive, and dis-
seminate information.
Article 19 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (ICCPR), which is a formal-
ly binding legal treaty endorsed
by over 160 countries, including
Sri Lanka, which signed it in 1980,
guarantees the freedom of expres-
sion and information.
Sri Lanka therefore is under an
obligation to enact RTI laws de-
spite failing to do so in the years
that have lapsed despite repeated
promises by previous governments
to look into the matter.
RTI Draft Bill
According to the government,
proposed draft bill which is to
be presented to the cabinet was
released last week to certain
parties, mainly party leaders and
civil society groups for review.
The draft is to then be presented
in parliament on February 20 after
necessary amendments according
to the feedback received.
Minister of Plantation Indus-
tries Lakshman Kiriella, sitting in
for Cabinet Spokesman Minister
Rajitha Senaratne last week at the
Cabinet press briefing said this
was done to ensure that the bill can
be passed by parliament without
much opposition as any suggested
amendments can be done prior to
presenting it perhaps showing the
government’s interest in getting
the law passed. The current prom-
ise of the government is to pass the
bill within three weeks after its in-
troduction.
First, any RTI law must be guid-
ed by the principle of maximum
disclosure to which the draft con-
forms stating that every person
will have the right to access official
information in the possession of
any public authority. That is sub-
ject to of course to certain needed
limitations.
Second principle is that, public
institutions should be obligated
to publish and widely disseminate
documents of significant public
interest. According to the pre-
sented document, Ministers along
with the President if he so holds
a Minister’s position should pub-
lish an annual report with partic-
ulars relating to the Ministry. It
also states that these copies must
be available for public inspection
and copies should be issued for a
fee.
Third, public bodies should
promote the principles of open
government and public education,
including informing the public of
its right to access information.
Fourth, any exceptions to dis-
closure should be clearly and nar-
rowly drawn. According to the
Chief Executive Officer of the
Press Complaints Commission
of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) Sukumar
Rockwood, while the draft has
limitations on certain informa-
tion on state security and privacy,
those limitations are nevertheless
needed.
Fifth, all public bodies must es-
tablish open, accessible internal
procedures and systems to ensure
the public’s right to receive infor-
mation, rapidly and fairly.
The draft thus provides for a
RTI commission to be set up un-
der the 19th amendment to the
constitution. The five member
commission will work as the gov-
erning body in matters regarding
information and according to the
document information officers
will also be appointed to all gov-
ernment institutions to handle re-
quests for information regarding
that particular institution.
Finally, there should be a
presumption in favor of public
meetings of governmental bodies,
protection for whistleblowers and
a prioritization of any FOI law
over secrecy provisions in other
legislation.
The draft on the looks of it follows
these standard principles and rec-
ommended framework of a RTI Bill.
According to Uvindu Kurukulasuri-
ya, Editor of the
Colombo Telegraph
the bill is a good start.
Speaking of the proposed bill
Sunil Jayasekara, secretary of the
Free Media Movement (FMM) said
the draft bill appears to be satisfac-
tory. “This is very similar to the bill
presented in 2003 and we are cur-
rently reviewing it” he said adding
that while it is a step forward FMM
will also compile a report suggesting
a few revisions to the document.
“The presented draft bill is a
good document and very well done”
Rockwood said agreeing with Sunil
Jayasekara, he also mentioned that
the draft is similar to the previous
draft that was presented to the par-
liament. “It has been rehashed” he
admitted.
Media
Clearly such a bill can do wonders
for the media industry. “We have
time and time again fought for the
cause” said Sunil Jayasekara of
the FMM adding that the media
and professionals have always
been interested in getting RTI laws
implemented in Sri Lanka.
In a time where gossip is meted
out as news Jayasekara says RTI
laws will mean better professional-
ism in the media industry. “Journal-
ists with no media ethics will not be
able to survive in such an environ-
ment” he said. Explaining himself
Jayasekara said that by having in-
formation available freely, media
institutions will not have an excuse
for shoddy reporting.
Sukumar Rockwood, Chief Exec-
utive Officer of the PCCSL agrees.
“While the law will be important to
both media and civil society it will
be able to transform the media in-
dustry” he said adding that media
will learn to report more accurately.
“They can do good stories” he said
adding that this will hold the gov-
ernment responsible for their ac-
tions. “This will build a more cred-
ible media in the country” he said.
According to Kurukulasuriya
journalisminother countrieswhere
RTI laws have been implemented is
quite different to Sri Lanka as they
have access to information and
therefore can deliver accurate, fair
and balanced accounts to the pub-
lic. “It will open new subjects which
media is unable cover now” he said
adding that currently access to in-
formation in Sri Lanka is severely
limited by number of factors such
as the legislative framework which
includes secrecy legislation.
Civil Society
The law if enacted will also be
largely important to the civil so-
ciety. It is clear that for citizens to
make informed decisions infor-
mation must be made available.
Through RTI voters will be able to
assess the performance of elected
officials thereby exercising their
democratic rights effectively, for
example through timely protests
against new policies.
According to Rockwood this will
encourage citizens to think and rea-
son prior to making any decisions.
“If the parliament improved the
draft, it will certainly can be used as
tool of good governance, democracy
or the ‘rule of the people’. Democra-
cy rests on the belief that dialog and
consensus between all members of
society will bring about the fairest
decision on how tomanage social af-
fairs and distribute social wealth.”
Kurukulasuriya said adding that
RTI is thus a critical element in
ensuring full, rather than simply
token, democracy. He stressed that
it is the responsibility of the State
to ensure that everyone has equal
access to information pertaining
not only to their private lives, but
to everything that affects them as
citizens.
Failings and Pitfalls
However concerned parties have
noticed certain pitfalls in the draft.
“There is no mention of the private
sector” Kurukulasuriya pointed
out. “It should be applied for the
private sector and non-government
organization (NGO) sector too.
Even the RIT Acts in Bangladesh
and Indonesia covered both sectors.
South Africa has a better version”
he said.
He was also quick to point out
that people have been refused
the opportunity to look into
examination results. “What about
fraud and improper grading?” he
questions which is a valid query
given the incidents in the recent
past.
According to himWhistleblowing
is a key component in the fight for
good governance against corrup-
tion and abusing powers and he says
that whistleblower protection in the
draft bill (para 38) is not enough. “It
clearly needs whole separate law
on protecting such individuals” he
says.
Civil Society groups also appear
to have a misgiving about not be-
ing approached by the government
despite claims to the contrary. Civil
society activists, media or more im-
portantly the public has not been
consulted in the matter yet.
“The government did not ap-
proach us” said Jayasekara adding
that it was his organization instead
that approached the government on
the topic. “But we will not get into
a conflict over this as the most im-
portant thing is to get a comprehen-
sive and proper RTI law passed” he
said adding that however the gov-
ernment has not done their duty in
informing interested groups.
Agreeing Kurukulasuriya said
not only media but public also
should be consulted. “These are
characteristic of an authoritarian
regime” he said.
But according to most, the big-
gest challenge will be the imple-
mentation of the laws through the
state mechanism. While more than
90 countries in the world today
have introduced Right to Informa-
tion (RTI) legislations to safeguard
people´s access to public informa-
tion, the implementation part has
not been smooth.
“We all know how government
institutions work so this is what we
are most concerned about” Jayas-
ekara said adding that 50 percent
of the government officers do not
like RTI laws to be passed. “They
have not been educated regarding
it and feel like it is an attempt to
trap them or meddle in their mat-
ters” he said adding that thismust be
immediately rectified putting to rest
any doubts they might have in order
to effectively enforce these laws.
According to Victor Ivan, Former
Editor of
Ravaya
any information
thus obtained must be allowed to be
used and shared freely. “There is no
point giving people information they
will not be able to use” he said.
Also there appears to be a wait of
28 working days to receive informa-
tion. “This is way too long ” says Ku-
rukulasuriya.
“The laws will work and I am op-
timistic about this” says Rockwood.
However, according to him for it to
work the rights handed over by RTI
laws must be put to use. “Media and
public must use their right and ask
for information” he said adding that
only then the laws will be effective
in creating good governance. Ac-
cording to him the responsibility
also lies in the media to ensure this.
“Journalists must use the free infor-
mation and also educate the people
about their right to receive informa-
tion” he said adding that only then
this law will be a successful one.
“The presented draft bill is a good
document and very well done”
Rockwood said agreeing with Sunil
Jayasekara, he also mentioned that the
draft is similar to the previous draft that
was presented to the parliament. “It has
been rehashed” he admitted
The Right to Information Bill
New
Government’s
Newest
Milestone
Raises many hopes
and some fears
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8-9 11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20-21,...68
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